Monthly Archives: August 2006

Relative Truth

I got an email the other day from Paul Z. in Connecticut. Paul has been one of my brother Phil’s best friends since they were kids, and he wrote to object to my recent characterization of my father as “a hard case.”

“I know he was a bit stiff,” Paul writes, “but he was always decent to me and the rest of your brothers’ friends, and he took my ribbing him pretty well. I don’t know that he was that dogmatic. I saw him in lots of situations where he was upset by various things his kids were going through, and he wasn’t always that hard a case and, indeed, was vulnerable.

“I know he took interest in all of his sons and worried about them and also tried to take positive action to help them succeed in life. He was as straight as an arrow, but he liked and appreciated golf, music and reading annual reports. He was also generous, and he and your mother often offered to include me in your family’s events.”

Paul said my dad wasn’t “that hard to get through to,” and that I should “try to see him through other people’s eyes. Maybe that way you will realize you both would have enjoyed each other’s company more and more if his life hadn’t been cut off so short. That thought doesn’t have to be something to lament, but rather to take pleasure in what would inevitably have happened. ”

Each time I read Paul’s note, I discover something else I like, something to be grateful for. I love, for example, that he teased my father. I’ve done the same with other people’s fathers, but never with my own, and learning this seems to complete a circle. Ribbing is one of the few ways that males express fondness for each other, and it warms me to think that my father, so remote and Olympian in my mind, had that experience.

I told Paul that there had been some ugly stuff between my father and me, and that I thought I’d let go of it intellectually. However, “the emotions are sometimes slow to follow. But I’m not walking around with a chip on my shoulder….”

I also told him I was amazed to discover that my three youngest brothers seemed to have had a different father  than the one I knew. One who was supportive and understanding, and less prone to use force. One summer when I was home for a visit, my father came downstairs one Saturday evening wearing plaid pants, a pale yellow shirt, tie and a green sport coat.

Brother Phil looked up and said, “Ah, yes, clothes DO make the man.”

To my amazement, Dad grinned. Things were, indeed, different. I could never have said such a thing.

And yet on another summer visit, we were all at the dinner table and my youngest brother, Jeff, was ragging me fiercely. While everyone watched, I calmly loaded my spoon with orange sherbet, held the handle firmly and flicked the spoon backward.

The sherbet caught Jeff squarely in the forehead.

It was a breach of decorum that when I was a kid would have outraged my father, but that night he laughed with everyone else. Perfect timing, and justice had been served.

One summer I was driving back from the Outer Banks with brother Dave after a family gathering. Listening to “Henry,” a sweet, evocative cut on Keb Mo’s “Slow Down” CD which features a steel guitar, I commented”Dad would have liked this song.”

Dave started, as if shocked by a live wire. Not that he disagreed, I think, but the sentiment surprised him. Dad was such a powerful figure in our lives, that mentioning him triggered a rainbow of conflicting emotions.

I reminded him that when we were kids, Dad sang Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” while giving us a bath, proof that deep inside this neo-Victorian lurked a soulful, if unrequited, man.

What I’m most grateful for is Paul’s suggestion that if Dad were alive, we would “inevitably” have enjoyed each other.  I hadn’t thought in those terms, and I value it for the wisdom from which the suggestion springs. Indeed, if this life is just the beginning, and our existence continues beyond this realm, perhaps relationships do, too.

A few months ago, I dreamed I walked down a hallway and looked into an empty room. There wasn’t much in it — just a bed and a table. But what I do recall vividly was a large, luminous light form from which came a warm, loving glow.

When I awoke, I felt without question that I had been allowed to visit my father on “the other side,” and that whatever his issues when he died at 59, he had cleaned things up and moved on.   I’m grateful to Paul Z. for reminding me to do the same.

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Stems and Seeds

I drove recently to the middle-Georgia town of McDonough (local pronunciation: mick DON a) to visit with Amy Lovelace, who spends at least an hour a day, every day, hitting golf balls. She also plays 18 holes once a week and nine holes on another outing.

Amy is 46, married (her second) and has two dogs and three cats. She is slender and tan, has green eyes  and long, honey-colored hair pulled back beneath a black Titleist baseball cap. The muscularity in her arms and shoulders attests to the 25 years she’s spent in the gym.

Amy’s been a clerk at ABF Freight Systems for 23 years and drives a 5-series BMW, but it’s golf that defines her life.

"It’s the only thing I do really well," she says. "My husband says I’m obsessed."

The image of Amy in prescription sunglasses, black, sleeveless Polo shirt, short black polyester skirt and dust-covered white and tan golf shoes drilling balls into a wide, green field has come to mind often in the past few days. I’m working on a golf story, but that is not the issue.

It’s been five years and seven months since I was laid off from a job that I should have left months before when I realized  that my purpose lay elsewhere. In the years since I’ve done everything from working in a warehouse to writing for websites. I’ve refinanced my house a couple of times, started a new career (acting and modeling) and revived an old one (journalism).

I’ve also worked diligently at cleaning up my past so that I can live more powerfully – and more fruitfully – in the present. Trouble is, there’s not much fruit. I’m down to what, in the drug days, we used to call "stems and seeds."

Last week, I had dinner with MJ, the woman I broke up with a year and half ago, and tried to articulate what it is I’m about. It came down, inevitably, to spirituality.

"You’re in the barn," I told her, "but there are a lot of people out there who aren’t in the barn, or even close. I have a feeling that, because of the mistakes I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had, I can reach some of them. And maybe even bring a few of them into the barn."

The barn, of course, is belief in a higher power. MJ is what Supreme Court scholars used to call a "strict constructionist." She has an unwavering belief in the Bible as the word of God. I’ve never gotten much of a buzz from the Bible, and have found inspiration in more esoteric materials. Which makes me a "loose constructionist."

Trying to  explain to my friend K a few days later, I said, "I’m the guy holding the door to the barn, but I’m not in the barn. I’m too much the sinner. But there are a lot of people out there who subconsciously want to be in the barn, and they are turned off by conventional religion. I think my purpose is to connect with some of them."

Considering the work I’ve outlined for myself – writing, producing, interviewing, appearing on-camera – I see no limit to the possibilities. So what’s the problem?

Two things, I think. A clue to the first is on my refrigerator door. It’s a card my brother Phil sent me a few years ago. On the front is an overhead shot of a skier carving his way through moguls big enough to hide Hannibal’s elephants. At the bottom, these words: "Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goals."

Working outside the corporate walls for the first time in my life, filled with doubt and uncertainties,  I have focused on the obstacles. And as Jesse Jennings writes in the August issue of Science of Mind magazine, "obsess on the mountain, and you may well manifest a range of them."

Having manifested a towering,  snow-capped range, I must now make it disappear. I found encouragement in that regard on a tape called "The Law of Deliberate Creation."

"All you have to do is find an excuse to feel good," says a group of beings calling themselves Abraham through channel Esther Hicks.

There’s much more to it than that, of course, and lest it sound like an invitation to hedonism, it is anything but. It means to focus on desires and activities that align with who you are at the core of your being.

The second problem is that I keep thinking I’ve got to do this alone. But K reminded me of something she’d read recently in God Calling. God Calling, passages for every day of the year seemingly channeled from Jesus by two British women, is listed in TOOLS on my home page. My own copy, underlined, high-lighted, hand-indexed and held together by packing tape, disappeared last month when Delta Airlines lost my suitcase.

"He said it doesn’t matter if you don’t remember what you read," K said. "What matters is to stay in His presence."

That’s probably the best advice of all, the Cliff Notes version distilled to its essence. I’ve tried it before, and it helped. Seems like it’s time to get as serious and disciplined about it as Amy Lovelace is about golf. 

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A Family Functions

On a desperately hot afternoon, when smart beach-goers had forsaken the charms of sun, sand and sea for air conditioning and frosty beverages, a pair of dolphins appeared a quarter-mile off the shore of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The larger dolphin surfaced and disappeared several times, it’s black dorsal fin and back sliding gracefully through the water. But the smaller dolphin erupted from the surface like a Polaris missile and crashed back into the water with an enormous splash. Moments later, he exploded into the air 20 yards away, spun to expose his shiny underside to the sun and slammed happily into the ocean on his back.

Five times in a matter of minutes he did this, like a toddler stamping happily in a puddle. That I say "he" is supposition, of course, supported primarily by my own circumstances.

I was at the beach with my brothers and their families, which includes four nephews and two nieces. My nephews, ages 10 to 16, fought rubber-band-gun wars, played Game Boy, romped in the waves, built sand structures and threw water balloons from the top floor deck at family and strangers alike.

My nieces, on the other hand, went shopping, laid in the sun, swam demurely, watched television and shopped some more.

So, for my money, the dolphin was male, and was emblematic of special and memorable week.

Two years ago, I realized that my daughters, both of them adult, married and mothers-to-be, scarcely knew their uncles and their families. There were many reasons for this relationship drift, none of them worth mentioning. But as the father and oldest brother, I felt responsible for allowing it to happen and doing something to reverse it.

I wrote a letter to everyone laying out my concern, taking full responsibility for the problem and saying I hoped that we could remedy the situation as soon as possible. The response was positive, and last summer my older daughter and her family joined my brothers and I for two days at our annual beach together. This year, both daughters announced they would be there and had rented a house half a block away.

I thought about the vacation a lot before it began, and not without apprehension. There is a saying in my men’s group that every family with more than one member is, by definition, dysfunctional, and ours is no exception.

My brothers and I are the sons of a stoic, strict and unyielding man. A highly successful man, a good man, a man of integrity, but in many ways a hard case. Although he mellowed as he aged, and was a different father to my three younger brothers than he was to his older sons, he never truly revealed himself or showed even a hint of vulnerability.

Our environment was neither affirming nor particularly positive. And in a big family where love was in short supply, competition was the dominant dynamic, although it was veiled by a façade which suggested we were too cool and composed to care.

Despite our affection for each other, that dynamic hasn’t changed much. Every morning at the beach, two of my sisters-in-law went for a bike ride before breakfast. Three of the four brothers also rode bikes during the week, but not once did anyone say to another brother, "Hey, want to go for a bike ride?"

In my unofficial role as family analyst, I concluded that I was at least partially responsible for perpetuating this mentality. I can be very social, but I need solitude to re-charge, and I have at times gone to extremes to isolate myself from my brothers.

I was emotionally estranged from the family for a few years after marrying as a teenager, and 15 years ago was so angry with all of them — or so I thought — that I refused to see or speak to any of my brothers for two years.

When we reconciled, when I realized that the issues were mine, not theirs, every one of them welcomed me back and, knowing I was going through a hard patch, offered financial support. For my part, I’ve made it a point to offer  love and warmth in a climate that is still chilly to the expression of feelings.  I hug everyone, affirm my nephews and nieces, and even kiss my brothers on the cheek.

So to see everyone smiling and laughing last week in the great room of our beach house was nothing less than a dream come true. I had a lump in my throat as I stood on the arm of a couch — the only vantage point where I could get them all in the lens — snapping photos of them laughing and talking. Of nephew Eric, 10, hauling my 2-year-old grandson McRae around. Of my daughters chatting with aunts and uncles, my brothers chuckling with my sons-in-law, my sister-in-law beaming at my granddaughter Regan.

It wasn’t perfect. A brother and his wife haven’t joined us in years, and a cousin and aunt couldn’t attend this year. But we’ve never had a gathering this big for something other than a funeral, and when I wasn’t choked with emotion I felt like that joyful, leaping dolphin. 

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